Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. — Acts 2:46-47
Day by day we have choices about where to put our focus, our time, our energy. It is wise to take things “one day at a time,” to remember that the promises of Easter include a new day every day. The scriptures throughout the Easter season — celebrated for fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost — are filled with wisdom to guide our days and with promises of God’s grace to lead us into new and more meaningful life. As the song lyric from the musical, Godspell, prays: “Day by day / O, Dear Lord / Three things I pray / To see thee more clearly / Love thee more dearly / Follow thee more nearly / Day by day.” Join our powerful lineup of Foundry and guest preachers through this series and listen for how Spirit teaches us to live day by day.
WHAT IS AT RISK?
A sermon preached by Rev. Kealani Nunes Willbanks with Foundry UMC, April 16, 2023, First Sunday after Easter, “Day By Day” Series.
Texts: Acts 2:14a, 22-32, I Peter 1:3-9
When Pastor Ginger asked me to preach for a Sunday while she would be out on her Wellness leave, I was both excited and terrified at the same time. You see, I am a behind-thescenes person. In fact, it is my job to empower others with the tools they need to do their ministries effectively. Now most of you know that I oversee the operations, human resources, finance, and facilities for our beloved Foundry Church. So when she asked me, I thought, SURE! I can’t wait to find a way to integrate the Bible with an Excel spreadsheet, maybe I can even use a PowerPoint slide deck! It is also, not lost on me that this morning, I am giving a sermon, about a guy who gave a sermon. So, what I’d like for us to do is take a step back and consider what was going on behind the scenes that day with Peter and the disciples. What it must have felt like for him when they encountered the Holy Spirit and what it meant for Peter to take that first brave step of sharing what they had experienced and then, with boldness, giving instruction to the church for the days ahead. Let us pray.
As we heard in this morning’s scripture, this is considered the Proclamation of Christ, or what in Greek is called the Easter Kerygma Κέρυγμα. Now, we know it is not the FIRST Easter message, that was given by our sisters Mary and Mary on the day of Resurrection. This message is unique as we are introduced to the Holy Spirit. It begins with an often-overlooked half-verse, one that sets the tone for the story and sets the stage for what Peter is about to do. We know that earlier in the book of Acts, Peter gives a separate message, a warning about the impending traitor, Judas. In today’s passage, Peter’s message is about the redeemer, Jesus. As we unpack this passage, let’s consider what may have been happening behind the scenes.
First, we know there was a party. It was the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, both Jews and Gentiles were present, and the house that Peter and the disciples were meeting in, was relatively close to the temple. They gathered in this house because Jesus had just promised them that they would bear witness to receiving the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that what they experience in that room is supernatural. We know that they were touched by the fire of the Holy Spirit, causing them to speak in languages that they did not know, but were known to others and spoken only in their native tongues.
As a child of the 80s, I recall this Bible story being taught on a flannel board, remember those? My treasured Sunday school teacher, Ms. Kay, would put a flannel board on an easel, and on that flannel board was a picture of 12 men sitting on the floor of an empty house. Ms. Kay would ask each of us to draw a picture on a piece of paper of a flame, cut it out, and then one by one, we would put a flame above each disciple’s head and move it along as she told the story. In hindsight, it was a strange, and perhaps a bit frightening visual for a child, but a helpful one, particularly as I am a visual learner.
As an adult, I also process information internally. And while I geek out at graphs, charts, building plans, and really anything that helps me see what I am about to learn, I deeply appreciate imagination. Indulge me for a moment and let your imagination take you into this time and space with Peter.
Consider what it must have felt like standing in the crowd gathered for the Festival of Pentecost. Listen to the sounds, the chatter. Are there children laughing and playing? Is there music? What are the people around you saying? Are they whispering? Are they gossiping? What do you smell? What do you see? Can you see the house where the disciples are meeting? Can you hear the strange noises coming from that house? Consider the moment when the disciples emerge from the house. Do they look scared? Are they smiling?
Scripture tells us that when the disciples came out of the house, the crowds immediately accuse them of being drunk. They had no idea what was happening, they just knew something did not look or sound right. Now, imagine what it must have looked like to see one man emerge from the group of 12, and slowly take a step toward the crowd. It’s not as if he is stepping onto a stage, with a good 10 to 15 feet between himself and the crowd. In fact, this relatively small and liminal space, between things that are so closely related together, this INTERSTITIAL space, took an incredible amount of courage to step into.
Now, it’s important that we have a solid understanding of who Peter was. He was a part of Jesus’ inner circle. I would argue that he might have been the 2IC. Most of the time he was loyal, nonetheless he was regarded as a leader by his peers. Peter was bold. He held true to his Galilean roots and reputation of being brave, courageous, and BLUNT. The Galileans understood what it meant to be parsimonious. I imagine, for any of you who study the Enneagram, that Peter was a strong 8. He was not an exceptional scholar by any means, nor was he a brilliant speaker. In fact, Galileans had their own dialect and often struggled with the guttural sounds of their language. Their pronunciation was considered harsh in Judea. He was one person, talking on behalf of a group of other people, to all of their people. What gave him this authority to speak and more importantly what was he going to say and HOW was he going to do it in such a small space?
True to his God-given name, Petros, which literally means a mass of rock detached from the living rock, Peter emerges from the group. Confidently placing his whole body, his full power, his entire countenance, and prophetic calling, on a ROCK, he looks out to the crowd and begins to speak.
I want to take you behind the scenes of an experience I had while traveling with a group of worship leaders in Cape Town, South Africa. It was January of 1997 and we were invited to lead worship at the International Youth Conference for the Salvation Army, where the leaders of the Salvation Army signed their first commitment to reconciliation for past stands on apartheid. While at the conference, one of the speakers shared about the opening of a new facility near Johannesburg. This facility was dedicated entirely to the care of infants who were born HIVpositive. This home was near Doornfontein, which at the time had exceptionally high crime rates. Being a new mother myself, I felt compelled to see this place. And since our group had to fly out of Johannesburg to return to the States, I asked the hotel staff to help arrange for a cab to take me to this home, ETHEMBINI, translated, “A Place of Hope”.
The hotel staff hailed a cab for me and when he arrived and I told him where I wanted to go, he was skeptical. It took us about 20 minutes to get there and when we arrived, I found myself at the entrance of a large, light-yellow building, with cartoon characters painted on the exterior walls and an even larger brick and iron fence surrounding it.
“We are here”, said my driver. I thanked him and let him know he did not need to wait as I planned to spend a few hours at the home. I started to ask his name but before I could finish my sentence, he interrupted with a huge smile and gently said, “No, I will stay until you are done, Miss.” He obviously knew something that I didn’t, and I knew not to argue.
For the next 3 hours, I wandered around this home, visiting with caregivers who had committed their lives to loving these infants and toddlers. I held some of the babies, rocked them in my arms, and learned their stories. I learned how some were born in homes, others in back allies, but each of them was there because their birth mother knew of the work being done at
Ethembini and that this place was truly the only hope for their child. I remember the songs the caregivers sang, and the smiles that emanated from these tiny cribs and beds. Regardless of the life sentence that was handed to these children, there was still so much joy in this home. I am so grateful for the faithful work of those caregivers who chose to step into that interstitial space of justice and care for those beloved babies.
I don’t know if Peter knew he was stepping into the interstitial space when stood on that Rock to preach. What I do know is that he was keenly aware that there was a chance his message would not land well. Peter’s message was one of rebuke and repentance, a message of discomfort and joy. And because Peter was both a member of this community and a disciple, he knew what was at risk if he didn’t share the experience of receiving the power of the Holy Spirit. I love what the brilliant theologian Willie Jennings writes in his commentary on the book of Acts, “There would be no chance of success unless the Spirit of the Living God breathed upon their witness.”
Peter stood bravely on that rock because he knew what was happening behind the scenes in that crowd. He knew he had to remind them of the prophet Joel’s harsh words for them to even understand the transformative power, and liberation, was now available to them. He had to be both vulnerable in his lament, and yet embody this hope, all while giving clear guidance and instruction for the days ahead.
As theologians, and I would argue that all of us are theologians as we study the text together, let’s reflect on how we can apply these stories, and the scripture to our context now. I invite you to receive this interpretation from the book Struggling to be the Sun Again, by Asian Womanist Theologian, Chung Hyun Kyung, as she shares a deeper understanding of what this could be by quoting the Filipina theologian Elizabeth Tapia who says,
Theology is not only a theoretical exercise. It is a commitment and participation in people’s struggle for full humanity, and discernment of God’s redemptive action in history. It is theology in action. Human liberation, not GOD talk, is the primary focus of theology.2
There is no dualism or sequential order between action and reflection. A “commitment and participation in people’s struggle for full humanity” and “discernment of God’s redemptive action in history” are an integral whole. Friends, we must keep doing this faithful work as on.
Let’s go back to South Africa. After spending 3 hours with the babies, the sun was setting, and the caregivers were eager to get me back on the road to my hotel. They walked me to the street and I was surprised to see the cab driver, still there, just as he said he would be. One of the caregivers and the cab driver exchanged words in a brisk tone, using a language I did not understand. Whatever they said to each other, I knew meant it was time for me to leave. They were both clearly concerned about something.
As we drove back to the hotel, the cab driver took a much different route. He was quicker with his turns and aggressive in his driving and I remember feeling nauseous. At one point, I recall seeing several men standing on the road with large machetes and weapons. I was scared. I began to hum the song that my grandmother would always sing to me as a child,
In thee O Lord…
When we finally made it back to the hotel, both the hotel staff and the cab driver were relieved that we’d made it back safely. He told me the cost of my travel for the day. It wasn’t unreasonable, in fact, I felt embarrassed at how little he was charging me. I handed him the money and then asked him what his name was. He gently smiled and looked me in the eyes and said, “Miss, my name is Peter.”
We know that the disciple Peter's message in Acts came from a place of deep reflection. Peter had witnessed painful oppression but knew, with full faith and confidence, that Spirit would intercede. We know this because we read in 1 Peter chapter 1 that his message was also one of hope! A message of BLESSING and ABUNDANCE. A reminder of the promise that the Messiah was who he said he would be! Peter was full of indescribable joy, saying my flesh will live in hope!
Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith. I Peter 1:8
Peter had a message of transformative power and he wanted everyone to know that human liberation was available through Christ.
This is critical. We do justice work here. Someone once asked me, in one sentence, what does Foundry do well? My answer was, “We show up!” We show up for protests, we show up on the Hill, and we show up at Pride. We work hard, and long hours to be a community and a church on the right side of history. Often, this work feels daunting. It feels helpless and draining. It is heart-wrenching and let’s normalize this, it is often deeply depressing. This message that Peter brings us, is one we need to constantly remind ourselves of. The joy, the INDESCRIBABLE JOY of being faithful.
I know it is hard. It is so hard to remain faithful in this fight when we see our unhoused neighbors evicted from their safe spaces in our local parks. It is so hard to remain faithful in this fight when women of color are dismissed, shamed, and forced to live under colonial double standards. It is so hard to remain faithful in this fight when our transgender children are being demonized, harmed, and persecuted.
But we stay fighting. We share in the struggle for full humanity. Because we know that when we remain faithful not just for ourselves, but for others, there is an indescribable joy, a promise of hope for full human liberation.
I asked the question before, what compelled Peter to stand on that rock and give this message to a crowd who thought he was drunk? I believe Peter knew what was at risk. He knew what was at risk for him, for his disciples, and most importantly, for humanity if he did not bring this message of hope and share the interceding power of the Holy Spirit!
What rock are you being called to stand on? What interstitial space are you being called to step into? What is at risk? Whose life is at risk?
My prayer this morning is that day by day, as we embark on this Easter season together, we are reminded of our call to step boldly into those interstitial spaces where there is inequity, injustice, and oppression. That we cling to the promise of hope that Peter talks about, and we remind one another each and every day, that Spirit intercedes on our behalf, and we can and will have indescribable joy through Christ.